HERCULEAN efforts by thousands of Americans are beginning to pull Charleston out of the quagmire into which it was plunged by hurricane Hugo. Resurrecting the infrastructure and restoring the normal pace of life in this city of 289,000 people will take time. Completing the task will require a minimum of several months, the labor of thousands of workers, and perhaps billions of dollars.
Yet, aside from its obvious heavy costs, Charleston's recovery has already become a story of extraordinary service by individuals and organizations stitching their efforts into an effective whole.
It is a story of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Charleston's city government, and ad hoc volunteer coordinating groups doling out emergency supplies. It is also one of individuals like the Rev. John Evans of St. John's Island, west of Charleston; an exhausted North Carolina electric company lineman who gave his name simply as ``Jones''; and of a south Florida mechanic named Curt.
No sooner had Hugo passed, than the Rev. Mr. Evans began to inventory the needs of his parishioners and of other residents in the impoverished surrounding community of St. John's Island, where descendants of slaves have lived for more than a century.
Since damaged roofs were the most immediate problem, Evans obtained roofing materials through his state representative. Members of Evans's Bethlehem United Methodist Church were also short of food and bedding; theirs had been ruined ruined by rain. Fellow Methodists in Florida and the Midwest sent truckloads of supplies.
Aside from roofing repairs, Carolinians' most pressing need is for the resumption of electric service. As the second post-storm weekend passed, large sections of Charleston and nearby counties remained without power. Trees littered yards and sidewalks; some still are leaning against houses.
About 2,000 electric companies employees like Jones have come from East Coast states - in red trucks from North Carolina and blue from Baltimore.
``I had 18 hours' sleep the first week,'' says Jones, bleary-eyed from lack of rest. ``I worked 23 hours the first day, 22 1/2 the second, to midnight the third. Tell me: What day is this?''
Days run together like that for thousands of repairmen struggling to restore electricity, water, and telephones.
When interviewed, Curt, the Florida truck mechanic, did not know what day it was, either. South Carolina Gas and Electric Company, which serves Charleston, asked him to come help keep the company's trucks rolling. Working 24 hours the first day, he rested six hours, then worked another 24. The pace has slowed.
``I'm down to 14 hours a day,'' Curt says. He expects to be in Charleston ``at least 60 days, maybe through the first of the year. There's an awful lot to do.''
There surely is. Many supermarkets are still closed or only half-stocked with perishables. Some residents have run out of money and will find money tight for an indefinite time. The storm had washed away their jobs.
``It's hard,'' says Johnnetta Broyant, a part-time teacher now out of work until Oct. 9, when her public school may be able to reopen. ``Every day I have to come and get food and ice'' at a free distribution center. It is one of several in Charleston serving thousands daily.
Despite a growing edginess, most residents without electricity retain their perspective. ``We've all got our lives,'' says a young mother, carrying a box of canned goods from one center to her car. ``I've got candles. We're doing all right - you just gotta be patient.''
President Bush surveyed Charleston's damage by air and land late last week and approved $1.1 billion of federal storm relief aid voted by Congress. Evans said he thinks the president was on the right track by visiting.
One of the chief things top government officials should immediately do after such a storm, Evans says, ``is just show interest. If they would just come and visit'' as Sen. Ernest Hollings did the day after Hugo hit. People would be buoyed when the temptation is to feel defeated, he says.
``What you're doing will never be forgotten,'' Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley told hundreds of weary workers who gathered at a rally Sunday. ``People from all over the country came to help a community in need. We might have suffered some damage, but our spirit is alive.''
Although federal aid is now beginning to be felt, the story of Hugo also involves the questionable ability of the federal government to deal swiftly with an emergency of the magnitude of this hurricane, whose 135-m.p.h. winds damaged 80 percent of the city's roofs.
Hugo left rural areas so cut off that eight days after the storm officials of nearby Berkeley County were still pleading over the radio for residents to take extra food to fire stations, and to volunteer to deliver food to the needy and ``to help get trees out of people's houses.''
The government, through its Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was initially slow to recognize the dimensions of the damage, and for days was inadequate in the help it provided, critics charge. FEMA is now reported to be handing out millions of dollars in food stamps.
``We just couldn't seem to cut through the red tape,'' says a frustrated Peatsy Hollings, a Charleston native and the wife of Senator Hollings. Hollings, a Democrat, has been particularly critical of FEMA's response.
Mrs. Hollings and others still are complaining of the bureaucratic foot-dragging when dramatic action was called for.
``If I was in charge,'' Mrs. Hollings adds, ``I would do away with FEMA and call in the military.... The military knows how to move people. They know how to clear roads and to make roads. They know how to feed the people.''